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A pancreas unaffected by alcohol sends enzymes out to the small intestine to metabolize food. Alcohol jumbles this process. It causes the pancreas to secrete its digestive juices internally, rather than sending the enzymes to the small intestine. These enzymes, as well as acetaldehyde- a substance produced from metabolizing, or breaking down the alcohol-are harmful to the pancreas. If you consume alcohol excessively over a long time, this continued process can cause inflammation, as well as swelling of tissues and blood vessels.

This inflammation is called pancreatitis, and it prevents the pancreas from working properly. Pancreatitis occurs as a sudden attack, called acute pancreatitis. As excessive drinking continues, the inflammation can become constant. This condition is known as chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is also a risk factor for the development of pancreatic cancer.

A heavy drinker may not be able to detect the build-up of pancreatic damage until the problems set off an attack.

An acute pancreatic attack causes symptoms including:

-Abdominal pain, which may radiate up the back
-Nausea and vomiting
-Fever
-Rapid heart rate
-Diarrhea
-Sweating

Chronic pancreatitis causes these symptoms as well as severe abdominal pain, significant reduction in pancreatic function and digestion, and blood sugar problems. Chronic pancreatitis can slowly destroy the pancreas and lead to diabetes or even death.

While a single drinking binge will not automatically lead to pancreatitis, the risk of developing the disease increases as excessive drinking continues over time.

These risks apply to all heavy drinkers, but only about 5 percent of people with alcohol dependence develop pancreatitis. Some people are more susceptible to the disease than others, but researchers have not yet identified exactly what environmental and genetic factors play the biggest role.


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